I saw Quentin Tarantino’s new flick, Inglorious Basterds, on Friday night. It was great — ‘Pure Tarantino’ as the kids say. It struck me as a combination of Tarantino’s earlier work, Pulp Fiction, and Tim O’Brian’s quasi-fictional collection of Vietnam war stories, The Things They Carried. The movie will not be without its detractors as the violence it portrays is brutal and graphic. And in a criticism frequently directed at the director, this movie is full of “homages” to existing movies, both classic and obscure — his critics contend that Tarantino doesn’t actually invent anything new of his own, he just steals successful ideas from other directors and stitches them together into something he calls a new product. This applies to his sound effects, music choices, character names and even camera shots.
When Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown came out, the best analogy for a movie like this was to a Hip Hop track — a piece of music that remixes together samples from all sorts of sources into something new. While that analogy holds, so too does one about Hip Hop and Open Source software. French trip-hop producer Wax Tailor explains this quite well in a suitably-remixed/sampled track of his own, Once Upon a Past. For those not keen to listen to music at the office, the song argues that a society that allows its members to borrow from and build upon the achievements and accomplishments of others is culturally richer than one that does not. This is an argument also made at length by Larry Lessig in reference to sharealike licensing and copyright law reform. Given the ‘Transitive Principle of Analogous Creation’ (a term that I just invented), we can look at Tarantino’s work through the lens of lax copyright law and open source philosophy. Under this reading, his work is neither homage nor theft, but is instead a synthesis of and reflection on the work that came before his.
Unfortunately, what works for Tarantino is a luxury that most of us do not share. As I wrote about a bit ago, when amateur content creators try to remix existing cultural artifacts together into something new, they get takedown notices, sued, or see their work make money for someone else. There’s clearly a divide: a Hollywood movie exists to make money, buying sound samples or paying licensing fees is a cost of doing business. Unfortunately, small-time directors who are looking to make a movie, not piles of money, and host it for free on YouTube or Vimeo aren’t able to leverage the same library. Even if they release their creation under a free license they’re still on the hook for any and all IP that they added into their mix.
So where does this leave us? As user generated content seems further into our collective popular culture, it will increasingly become fodder for Tarantino and anyone else who wants to paint a comprehensive picture of the world as they see it using parts of the world itself. I think that we need to have a discussion around what we want the roles of IP protection and the public domain to be. This doesn’t seem to be a discussion many people are having — and it doesn’t seem to be a discussion that many people realize needs to be had at all. So, if you are sitting around with your friends after watching Inglorious Basterds and run out of things to say about the movie, use it as a talking point to segue into the debate surrounding copyright law and the rights of content creators and producers. Your friends might flash you a strange look, but it’s a conversation well worth having.